Aspen’s hatter, Chris Roberts, is also an up-and-coming country singer
Hatmaker and singer-songwriter releases EP ‘Lost and Found’ on Friday
Chris Roberts’ new EP “Lost and Found” is available Sept. 24 on all streaming platforms.
Chris Roberts wasn’t angling for a touring and recording career when he played a series of small shows at Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar during the winter of 2018-19. His music had been mostly a private and personal pursuit, something the Austin native did when he wasn’t making cowboy hats at his Aspen shop.
But among the few who caught him playing his original songs at Hooch was music manager Cory Lashever, who convinced Roberts to make a go as a rock star. Roberts now has a growing national profile in the country and jam scenes, and on Friday will release his second EP of the year.
Titled “Lost and Found,” its lead single, “Chevy Van,” is a cover of the notorious 1975 Sammy Johns song about a one-night stand, transformed here into barroom sing-along.
Growing up in Texas in the 1990s, Roberts listened to everything from the Beastie Boys and Marilyn Manson to Johnny Cash. But the sound that changed his life was what he heard on his first trip to Aspen in 1999, Roberts said. He tagged along with a group of friends who road-tripped from Austin to the mountains to see Widespread Panic play the (short-lived) Aspen Harmony Festival at Buttermilk. He’d mostly been a jock and a baseball player until then.
“They said, ‘Come on, we’re going to Aspen to this festival and to see this band Widespread Panic,’” Roberts recalled recently in an interview at his Aspen shop. “I said, ‘Who? I don’t f-ing know them.’”
Listening to Widespread on the drive here was revelatory, but the concert experience itself was life-altering.
“I’ve never seen so many people having fun,” Roberts said. “And I dug the music, and it was quite the party. That’s the time that I put down my baseball glove and bought a guitar.”
He played one college gig, he recalled, but otherwise just wrote and played songs for himself in the years that followed.
Roberts came back to Aspen in 2013, moving here and opening his Aspen Hatter shop on Mill Street. It quickly became a successful venture — successful enough that Roberts could hire employees and eventually open a second location back in Austin. That meant he was spending less time making hats or behind the counter and more time sitting in the corner of the shop, strumming his six-string and quietly singing his songs.
Unsuspecting customers, locals and friends became his first audiences and his first fans, enough of them encouraging him to do something public with the music that, finally, after a few years, he started reluctantly looking toward live performance. That took him to Hooch.
“I don’t need to do it,” Roberts said of sharing his music publicly. “But I guess deep down in my heart, I do need to do it. It’s where I get my feelings out. My songs are true and I’m telling a story just in every song.”
Lashever was semi-retired to Aspen after a successful Los Angeles-based career in music management, having formerly represented the estates of deceased artists like Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. Hearing Roberts at Hooch convinced Lashever to get back in the game.
After watching Roberts play, Lashever introduced himself and said “I’m going to get back in the music business if you want to do this.”
Roberts, happy making hats in the mountains, obviously wasn’t on a career-driven path out in industry hubs Nashville or Los Angeles trying to make it big. He was playing a show to a few people in a basement bar in Aspen. But, he said, he was willing to find an audience and Lashever was inspired to help him do it. As Roberts put it: “I wasn’t ready to be hidden anymore.”
The first of his two 2021 EPs, “Red Feather,” was released in February. It drew immediate national attention, landing Roberts festival gigs, a profile in American Songwriter magazine and in June Relix magazine named him an “On the Verge” artist in a glowing write-up.
But the coronavirus pandemic has slowed momentum for launching the late bloomer, who already has streaks of gray in his scraggly beard.
Roberts was beginning his first national tour in March 2020, playing six warm-up club gigs with a new backing band leading up to a splashy spotlight concert event at SXSW in Austin. When the festival canceled and the world shut down, rather than coming home to Aspen, Roberts and his crew started recording.
“We decided to hightail it to Joshua Tree in the California desert and found a studio,” explained Lashever. “At that point, Chris and the band were able to record together for the first time. It turned lemons into lemonade. We weren’t gonna stop working. … I think it was a total blessing for the band. They found their sound this way.”
That sound, as captured on the new EP, is somewhere on the rootsy spectrum between folky Americana and Red Dirt country, with some gritty vocals and some raw emotions but with hummable melodies and boot-stomping beats. Roberts himself describes the sound as “rock’n’roll hippie country magic”
The first song they recorded was “Get Down,” which came together as the band jammed and Roberts riffed his vocals while looking out at the desert horizon from the booth at Skylab Studios, thinking about his paused career and singing “gotta keep this train a’moving/I can’t slow it down.”
“I was just staring out the window and we’re all like, ‘What are we gonna do?’” he recalled.
But Roberts is now overflowing with music. As he tells it, he can’t record fast enough.
“You should hear the new songs,” he said. “I have a whole ‘nother album ready. … The new stuff is even better in my opinion, but I’m always moving on. I write a song just about every day.”
Roberts is impatient and wants to get the music out — “I’m like, ‘Let’s get on with it,’ ‘Let’s do this deal!’” — but Lashever is aiming instead to trickle out the music, grow Roberts’ radio and streaming presence and then aim for the big tour in the new year, maybe try again for the splashy SXSW launch when public health restrictions allow.
For now, Roberts has a Los Angeles club gig on Friday at the Hotel Café in Hollywood, following by an October residency in Austin at the iconic Antone’s blues club.
“There is a plan, but it’s day-to-day,“ Lashever explained. “Every day there’s a new protocol, like Live Nation says this and Texas says that.”
Roberts hasn’t played live much around Aspen, not since the Hooch run and a few one-offs with bands at Belly Up’s pre-pandemic Local Music Showcase. He’s up for playing more around here, but also has been frustrated by the local scene, he said, particularly in not getting his music in rotation at his hometown stations like KSPN and KDNK even as “Chevy Van” and the songs from “Red Feather” started hitting national radio and charting in Texas.
“Radio stations, a lot of them in the country and especially some really big ones, play my song, but you know who doesn’t? The guys in my backyard,” he said.
The pandemic’s stop-and-start effect on the live music industry has placed this late-blooming up-and-comer in a frustrating limbo. He’s gotten just a tantalizing taste of the rock star stage life, of having his music embraced by the masses.
As the live music industry roared briefly back to life this summer, Roberts landed on stage at the Allman Brothers Band’s Peach Music Festival in Pennsylvania, sharing a bill with jam band royalty including Warren Haynes, Umphrey’s McGee and String Cheese Incident. He was in his element playing to a crowd of 15,000 and is eager to get back in front of crowds that big.
“I was having a hell of a time, so I want to get back to it,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Let’s just do that. Can’t we do that again, like, every night?’”
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As snow begins to dust Sunlight Mountain Resort, so will beer and brats at Saturday’s Oktoberfest celebration.